Revelations in the Wall Street Journal that China is building a “spy base” and negotiating for a “military training facility” have Washington riled up. Presidential candidate and former ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley accused China of “infiltrating the Western Hemisphere” and “trying to turn almost every country [there] against us.” Senator Rick Scott (R-Fla.) tweeted, “The Biden administration’s weak appeasement policies have emboldened evil regimes like never before. Communist China and Cuba need to understand we will NOT tolerate this blatant act of aggression. It’s time the president gets a backbone and stands for America.”
These catastrophizing sentiments stand in stark contrast to the potential impact of these facilities and grossly misrepresent the policy choices of the Biden administration. Former government officials have cast doubt on the utility of such a listening station to China given advancements in technology. Furthermore, six and a half decades of isolation and economic pressure have only driven Cuba deeper into the arms of US rivals. This policy has made Americans less safe.
Cuba has faced US sanctions for more than half of its existence as an independent nation courtesy of Washington’s comprehensive trade embargo against the country. Contrary to popular belief, the embargo is not a single law, but a collection of various laws, regulations, and presidential proclamations, parts of which were codified into law by the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (LIBERTAD) Act of 1996.
Ever since President Dwight Eisenhower responded to then-dictator Fidel Castro’s nationalization of most US businesses in Cuba by banning all US exports to Cuba, regime change has been the central policy of the United States, with economic pressure (and, during the Cold War, covert assassination attempts) as the vehicle of choice. A 1960 Department of State memo describes this cynical logic in its proponents’ own words, insisting that “the only foreseeable means of alienating [Castro’s] internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship…Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba [and]…to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” Put more succinctly by Eisenhower himself: “If [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out.”
The Biden administration has yet to restore the vast majority of the Obama administration’s progress toward normalizing relations with Havana, though he relaxed the Trump administration’s restrictions on remittances and allowed more flights between the countries last year. Additionally, Biden also needs to reverse his predecessor’s designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. This is hardly appeasement.
Perhaps if the United States offered something to Cuba beyond stern lectures and economic misery, the Cuban government would be less receptive to China’s offer.
Yet, the Castro government and its successor have endured and political repression has continued, while everyday Cubans continue to suffer. As early as 1981, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) certified that the sanctions, “by themselves or in conjunction with other measures, ha[d] not met any of their objectives,” and instead gave Castro’s government a perceived external threat to point to and blame for “virtually every economic problem.” Even today, the Cuban government blames US sanctions alone for the nation’s problems when faced with protests and paints the protesters as American assets. US policy has failed to grapple with its counterproductive rally around the flag effect in this regard.
At the same time, US policy has inflicted grave human suffering in Cuba while stifling potential American economic opportunity. Furthermore, the UN has estimated that the embargo has cost Cuba more than $130 billion over its lifespan. Restrictions on remittances punish Cuba’s citizens for their government’s faults. Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism stymies foreign investment, tourism, humanitarian aid, and academic work. Within weeks of the re-listing, 45 banks and financial institutions halted all business with the island. The designation also sends conflicting signals, as the US government conducted recent meetings with the Cubans on counterterrorism.
While the embargo theoretically contains a carveout for food and medicine, its complex licensing requirements and the tendency of financial institutions and businesses to over-comply with sanctions effectively prevent food, medicine, and medical equipment from reaching Cuba. This has fueled and exacerbated humanitarian and public health crises. This was on display during the COVID-19 pandemic when a Swiss company that had previously been allowed to sell ventilators to Cuba was barred from doing so after being bought out by an Illinois company.
From the US perspective, government and academic studies have concluded that a more normal trade relationship would allow for more than $1 billion in new exports within five years and support thousands of jobs. Without the sanctions, the United States would be uniquely positioned to benefit, given the proximity of US ports to Cuba and the lower shipping costs it would face relative to other nations.
Cut off from the United States, Cuba has unsurprisingly turned to other benefactors. Venezuela remains Cuba’s primary trading partner and diplomatic ally. Earlier this year, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel exchanged visits, and Russia continues to trade with and provide humanitarian aid to Cuba. But with Venezuela sanctioned and Russia at war, Cuba needs more. Enter China. Beijing has been quick to help Havana, restructuring debt and providing trade and investment credits. Both countries also share a mutual distrust of the United States, as described in a 2022 joint communique condemning “foreign interference and blockade.”
Understandably, much of the commentary about the Chinese base in Cuba will focus on great power tensions and a more globally assertive China, or comparisons between the base and the US military presence in the Western Pacific. But this episode is foremost an indictment of US Cuba policy. While tensions between Washington and Havana would continue over human rights and the rule of law even if they normalized relations, then maybe Cuba would not feel so threatened that it would draw closer to a US rival. Perhaps if the United States offered something to Cuba beyond stern lectures and economic misery, the Cuban government would be less receptive to China’s offer.
Past As Precedent
Critics like Scott and Haley will accuse any president who seeks a more normal and balanced relationship with Cuba of being an appeaser, making concessions on human rights and democracy to a government they cannot trust. This ignores the fact that periods of dialogue with Havana, rather than isolation, have proved more successful in promoting those two ends.
When Jimmy Carter agreed to hold direct negotiations with the Cubans over fishing rights, travel restrictions, and establishing interest sections (in lieu of embassies) in the respective countries, Castro agreed to release more than 2,000 political prisoners. During the Obama administration thaw, Cuba released dozens of high-profile political prisoners and kept its promise to accelerate the expansion of the Internet on the island, growing Cubans’ access to information and vehicles for articulating dissent, like Cuba’s emergent blogosphere.
As tensions between the United States and China mount and threaten the prospect of a second Cold War, US policymakers would be wise to reconsider the hawkish status quo on Cuba, which has produced the very consequences it sought to prevent. US policy risks again making Cuba a battleground of a Cold War after humanity barely survived the Cuban Missile Crisis. The precarity of that precedent should urge Washington to ensure that Cuba is not again a fault line for nuclear-armed great powers. Given that the sanctions regime has only incentivized Cuba to expand security ties with China, America should instead adopt a course that proves to Havana that there is something to gain by working with the United States before it is too late.